When Leaders Lose Their Soul

There is a massive conversation that needs to happen within Christianity in America right now. More specifically, within the evangelical movement.

It will be a messy conversation with too many topics to cover. Nationalism and racism are priorities. But I don’t think these top the list. What does?


Right now, we have a leadership crisis in our churches and organizations.

Just today, I began reading Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. In the introduction, she writes:

Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking, only to lose it again.

We have seen leaders reach the summit of Christian ministry (whatever that means). And yet they have lost their soul in the process. What can a person give in exchange for their soul? Jesus tells us nothing.

The timing of starting this book is providential. A friend recommended it this week and I can’t help but connect it with recent news (initially reported in November) about Carl Lentz, the now ex-pastor of Hillsong New York City, who was fired by Hillsong for a number of reasons.

This comes after a number of other evangelicals in the last ten years have fallen from leadership–or their faith altogether. There are almost too many to name, and it saddens me deeply.

I’m not here to blame fallen pastors or shame them for “losing their soul.” Of course, they bear responsibility for their actions. But while I am not a megachurch pastor, I have been a pastor and I understand the temptation to seek the praise of people or receive special treatment a minister might benefit from. Every time the news breaks about another pastor, I ask myself, “Why did God have mercy on me?”

This all goes way beyond individual pastors. This is a “capital-C” Church crisis. We are all culpable. We have created and perpetuated a culture that allows and enables pastors–and even other ministry leaders–to lose their souls while gaining the world.

In a nutshell, we’ve rejected servanthood for celebrity.

And just to be clear, the incredibly significant problems of nationalism and racism fall under this problem of leadership. We are allowing “biblically qualified” leaders to abuse their authority and undermine the Scriptures to suit their political and ideological preferences at the expense of love, mercy, and justice.

I’ve written recently about how to understand true leadership and how to pursue it. So I won’t rehash that here.

The simple point I want to make is that our North American church system is broken and something needs to change. The system we have is hierarchical, rigid, and institutional. You won’t find this in the New Testament–where leadership was shared among many, service-oriented, and community-based.

It’s easy to think this is a megachurch problem. We only hear about “failed pastors” because they are, well, famous inside and outside of the church.

But as Rich Villodas, a pastor of a large church in Queens, tweeted yesterday, “This is not a big church problem alone. I’ve seen small and medium sized church leaders act like they’re the royal family.”

How do we solve this problem? It’s not simple or easy or quick. And I hope to provide some suggestions over the coming months as I take more time to process Barton’s book and my own spiritual leadership journey.

I can briefly say that it will take an innovative, unique, and more robust approach to recruitment, training, and preparation for church leadership. It will require a concerted effort to focus on the way and life of Jesus rather than simply the truth of Jesus. It will require a fundamental restructuring of our communities and what it means to be accountable as a leader. It will require a radical reorientation of what it means to lead when you are not the Leader (that’s Jesus’ role, not yours or mine).

In the end, it will take the marvelous, matchless grace of God in and through each of us so that collectively we live out our calling as the body of Christ. So long as we fail to live out this calling, leaders will continue to lose their souls, churches will be destroyed, and a watching world will not impressed at what they see.


Three Brief Reflections on Reformation Day

Today is an important day. It’s Reformation Day, the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In fact, it’s the 500th anniversary of the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church, challenging several unbiblical doctrines and practices of the established Roman Catholic church in Europe.

The core issue of the Reformation, of course, was justification: how are people declared righteous before a perfect God? Luther argued it was by faith in Christ, as the Scriptures reveal, not our own works. The church needed this correction. We need to remember and embrace this today.

The Reformation has much to commend to it. But it also left much to be desired—at least from where I sit as a white, Western Christian man in a Protestant tradition. A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said something like this. But my journey as a pastor of a Protestant community-type church who has transitioned into a missionary role has brought me, I think, more balance in my approach to church history, theology, and where we stand today as a movement. Not perfect. Just more balanced.

With that said, here are three reflections on the Reformation. These deserve a post all on their own. However, at the very least, I hope they serve as great conversation starters at your Halloween party tonight.

Justification is Not Everything
Justification is central to biblical Christianity, but it is not the whole of salvation. An unhealthy obsession with justification as the marquee doctrine can lead to a transactional faith where we simply see God as a judge who declares us righteous. He is that and he does that. But biblical salvation doesn’t end there. Perhaps a greater biblical theme (in both Old and New Testaments) than the need for justification is that we are alienated and orphaned because of sin. Therefore, what we need is not just for the Judge to declare us innocent, but for the Judge to become our Father and welcome us home. This is the biblical teaching of adoption which is a God-given grace that goes beyond justification.

We must remember that the Reformation happened in a Western, European, white, and heavily institutional context that dealt with a single doctrinal issue: justification. Furthermore, Luther’s context tended to emphasize the transactional nature of relationships (e.g. judge to defendant) rather than the familial nature of relationships (e.g. father to son). A Native American friend, speaking about a different topic, said something that applies here: “Most white people’s relationships are transactional [as opposed to familial].” Unfortunately, most of our Protestant traditions here in the States see our relationship with God, and others, this way, too. What’s more, our churches in 2017 look more like the church of Luther’s day than the church in the beginning of Acts.

Another Sola?
The “Five Solas” of the Reformation attempted to summarize the biblical teaching on salvation: that we are justified by God’s grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, received through faith alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. This is glorious! However, is it enough? A friend once asked me, “I wonder what would have happened had the Reformers emphasized another sola: love alone?” That is, we are justified so that we might do something: love God and love people.

The Reformation did not emphasize much about our post-conversion life. Of course, the Reformation dealt with a single issue (a doctrinal one at that). But the Bible isn’t an academic, theological textbook (or glossary) where one doctrine stands in isolation to others. The Bible is revelation. The Bible reveals a God who calls a people to himself, saves that people through his Son Jesus, and commissions that people to a life of love and service to a dark world. If justification by faith is true—and it is—then a necessary outflow is that we are enabled, by grace, to obey the Great Commandment. Now, we love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. Be thankful for Luther’s course correction regarding justification. But we must remember, with deep sorrow, that he also despised the book of James, a love-in-action letter that takes justification to its practical outworking.

Read more about this.

Always Be Reforming
There is a saying among the Reformed that goes something like this: “Reformed and always reforming.” I believe in that motto so long as we reform not to a certain theological camp’s standards but according to the word of God itself. And reform to the word of God does not simply mean assenting to theological platitudes. Sound doctrine, certainly according to Paul, always leads to a life life of worship and obedience to Jesus. So yes, let’s keep reforming and becoming more holistically biblical. But let’s not be reductionistic nor “reform” to the mindset or methodology of the church of the 16th century.

Today, remember Reformation Day and be thankful for what it was. A hearty “amen” to that! But let’s also keep in mind that it was not everything, nor was it ever meant to be.


A Brief History of Reformation Day

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so in the middle of pouring rain and booming thunder, Luther vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

After becoming a Roman Catholic monk, Luther grew to be terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel reveals justification is by faith, not works. This doctrine became the hallmark of Luther’s theology. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in Western history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by church clergy that was believed to remove or satisfy the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated that sin was excused and salvation could be purchased with money. As a matter of fact, if you read Luther’s Theses, you’ll see that this issue of indulgences was Luther’s primary concern.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days doubled as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for worship gatherings. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to be primarily an academic affair, for Luther was an academic theologian at the time. Posting something on the church door then was like writing a blog post today. But he did not expect it to gain much traction alongside all of the other “postings.” However, what ensued was a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood. But because of the newly invented printing press, his Theses were translated to German.

They didn’t spread as quickly as a viral video on YouTube, but they were distributed all over Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months. Not bad for the sixteenth century.

Luther’s Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92; an allusion to Jer. 6:14). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.

With his protest and with the independent work of other faithful people all over Europe, Luther helped sparked the greatest church movement since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith.

Luther was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Any community of believers who proclaim the good news that we are justified by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus and not our works can thank God for Martin Luther’s efforts. It was God, after all, who gave Luther the grace to recognize error, point to the Scriptures, repent of sin, and stand for truth. It was God who gave Luther strength and endurance and courage to stand up against man-made teaching.

On Reformation Day, let’s not praise Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his boldness or theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he testified to and trusted in One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus, the One on whom our salvation wholly depends.